In my city, Washington D.C., the buildings that crowd our streets are often colored. They have been, at times, temporarily decorated in the bright colors of Shepard Fairey’s famous stencil of President Obama; or otherwise come to be part of the very fabric of the city – John Bailey’s mural of Marilyn Monroe in Woodley Park comes to mind, as well Byron Pecks’ icon image of Duke Ellington on the True Reformer building overlooking the U-Street corridor. Yet despite all of the color and street art, Washington’s most famous urban artist didn’t do murals. He simply sprayed the name of his moniker, his alter ego, and left his mark on every part of the city at a time when graffiti as an art form and means of expression was just emerging. This is how the legend of “Cool Disco Dan,” was born.
His work is simple and immediately recognizable, his name in uppercase, encased in quotation marks. He would spray it in black or at times in red, and that was as about as colorful as he got. What really set Cool Disco Dan apart was his prolific output; there was a time in the 1980s where you could not go two to four blocks without seeing his name.
Cool Disco Dan emerged on the graffiti scene back when D.C. was Chocolate City, the murder capital, gang violence and the crack cocaine epidemic swept the city. Born east of the Anacostia river, he was raised in an impoverished community yet, in spite all of the adversity, it was a time when the streets were experiencing a cultural revival. A new rendition of hip-hop was making its way through the city’s streets; a cool mix between disco and funk dubbed “Go Go” arrived and was here to stay. Dan, like many other teens at this time, found himself caught up in it all, attending “Go Gos” and other parties that played the music. D.C. was making a name for itself throughout the country and Dan was there to bear it all.
“When D.C. was the murder capital, its was a lot more fun,” said an artist affiliated with Words Beats And Life, but who asked to remain unnamed. Word Beats And Life is a non-profit organization based in D.C. that works with the city’s urban youth. ”You could get away with a lot more as a graffiti artist. It felt a little bit freer. But I guess the trade off for that was the violence. I miss the old dirty grimy D.C. That was a cool time to be around.”
Dan began “tagging”, the act of leaving your name behind in different places, in 1984. At a time when graffiti carried heavy consequences, he was known for tagging in places that were open and unconcealed. Yet very few knew the man himself, there was a mystery to him and an attractive sense of intrigue, to know the artist at the time was an honor. If you didn’t know who Dan was you just weren’t in the middle of things, you weren’t cool.
Asad “ULTRA” Walker is also a D.C. based graffiti artist and close friend of Dan. Like his friend, Asad began tagging in the 80’s. “DC was full of graffiti taggers,” and I was hooked by the name-recognition without people knowing who I really was”. Asad brought a small answer to a big question, identity meant nothing, and the tag meant everything. Asad broke down exactly how graffiti in D.C. works. Are tags enough? Asad explained, “tags have as much aesthetic value as pieces. It’s a matter of context.” When asked about Dan, Asad had great things to say about the legend. He described Dan as an “awesome guy” a guy who “struggled” but also a guy that was, he says, “not the type to give up or compromise; I think that’s a major factor in how he got to be as well-known as he is.” Today Dan still sticks to his principles of yesteryear, and this includes remaining incognito. “I would say Dan is almost impossible to reach,” says Asad. “He’s very hard to pin down and we’re really trying to help him change that.” Aside from being an artist, Asad teaches Graffiti, works with at risk youth and has also taught at the D.C. Public School’s Incarcerated Youth Program, a high school inside of the DC jail.
“Dan is up there with the greats. He is one of the few artist in the graffiti world that got massive amounts of respect, without doing crazy pieces,” said the Words Beats And Life artist. “For me he was a ghetto celebrity.” Not everyone felt the same way. Not everyone felt the same way about Cool Disco Dan. “I wanted to get him so bad” said my father, a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police Department and a 23-year veteran.
Today, D.C. is going through a transition, some things are better and others are worst. In the midst of this latest ‘revival’ the graffiti artists emerge as repositories for our cultural history, taking us back to a day when Go-go was the city’s theme song. “Graffiti to me is all about making letters look as interesting as possible with the appropriate style, in the appropriate place,” says the Words Beat And Life artist, “You’re just like any other artist, but your canvas is usually walls.”
The eighties are now over, yet Cool Disco Dan should not be considered a washed up graffiti artist. Instead, he is among the last living artifacts of the Chocolate City. Today he can be described as nomad – a phantom of sorts but his story lives on. History repeats itself, the legend doesn’t die out it multiplies itself. Dan serves as an inspiration to other street artists in the city, forever part of the story contributing to the reason why the city’s buildings remain beautifully painted.